Thursday, 10 September 2015

I can...stage a production!

Kids love to perform! These days there are lots of community theatre camps that give kids of all ages the chance to get up on stage and step into the shoes of another character for a short while. Being part of a stage production creates an opportunity to develop all kinds of skills including increasing confidence and self esteem, learning about team work and knowing how to handle feedback. It's also a great way to make new friends! And most of all, it's about having fun! In London, Ontario, there has been a summer theatre camp for the past 15 years, for kids who use speech generating devices. Our experiences have led to many changes over the years - here's an overview of where we are now and how we got here!

The beginning...
Our story began at the Thames Valley Children's Centre in London Ontario, where a Recreational Therapist had the inspiration to plan a theatre experience for some of the youngsters who were using speech generating devices to communicate. The Augmentative Communication Service (ACS) stepped in for technical support (and because it was a lot of fun!) and the dream became a reality. Short plays were performed for delighted families on the stage at the Centre. 'We should do this again' we all thought...

The Partnership:
The following year, a partnership with the local Original Kids Theatre Company was formed. The local theatre was made available for a week in the summer for us to use. The kids had enjoyed performing at the Centre, but this gave them the experience of being in a real theatre, with access to everything that makes for an authentic experience: the stage, lights, costumes, props, music and sound effects. A group of volunteers was engaged from the Original Kids company. These teens have experience of being with the company over a number of years and some leadership experience. Each year they apply to be a volunteer at the camps and attend an interview to make sure that this is the right experience for them.

In the beginning there was one camp, come one, come all. Since then, we have graduated to a morning camp: "Setting the Stage" for actors who are new to the stage or have limited experience of using an SGD. These actors need more support to know when to say their line or where to move to on the stage. Actors who have more experience and who need less direction attend "On With the Show" in the afternoon. The format for the camp is the same, but there is more emphasis on what the actors can do to enhance their performance - using facial expression, movement, body language.

Roles & Responsibilities:
Our Original Kids are amazing! They commit to completing a long list of tasks that include: writing a play adaptation, organizing props, costumes, music & sound effects, directing the camp on the day of their own play, supporting the actors, learning about AAC and specific AAC strategies that the actors use, making a poster for their play, developing skits, assisting actors with snacks and getting into costumes.... the list goes on, but with the energy these teens have, they make it look almost effortless!

The Original Kids attend 3 meetings ahead of the camps: one to learn about what's involved and what their responsibilities are, the second to write the plays and the third to learn everything that there is to know about the specific AAC strategies that the actors will be using in the camps (in 2 hours or less...). Each actor is paired with an Original Kid who will set up their device and adapt their own communication to make interactions as successful as possible for the actor.

TVCC staff attend the camp for clinical/technical back-up purposes. We recruit the actors who want to come to camp, and work with them before hand to ensure that they have all the information that they need to come prepared. We acknowledge that the actors really love the opportunity to be acting alongside their peers, the Original Kids. They are often similar in age and have shared tastes in music, activities and experiences.

Our families create or update a Communication Passport (with help if needed) to share information with the Original Kids about their child's communication abilities and needs. This resource allows the Original Kids to get the information quickly and in a way that they will remember.

Writing the plays:
Carl from 'Up' and Jeremy playing Carl
Everybody likes to be the star of the show! To make sure that everyone has their moment in the spotlight, we put on 3 short plays in both camps every year. The Original Kids decide on a theme and each pick a story to adapt. Keeping in mind the number of actors who can sign up to attend the camp, the scripts are written to ensure that everyone has approximately the same number of lines. Scripts are 2 - 3 pages in length, longer for our more experienced actors, capturing the essence of a favourite children's story or movie. We started with Three Little Kittens. This year we tackled the likes of Frozen, Indiana Jones and Up! It's amazing what stories you can tell in 3 pages of script! Our scripts are completed ahead of the camps, so that devices can be programmed and our keen actors can practice their lines. It's also an opportunity to get the book out of the library or watch the movie. 

Programming devices:
Once upon a time... our actors used simple speech generating devices to say their lines - a device such as a Step by Step is easy to record on and to use, and in a small space is easy to hear. In a larger theatre, the volume needs to be louder and the quality of the recording or the voice needs to be as good as possible. Over the years we have seen our actors move to using their own speech generating devices to deliver their play lines. Families take on the responsibility of programming play lines into devices - it's a great opportunity for some families to come to the AAC clinic for a few reminders around programming, if needed.

"The play's the thing..."
The actors come to the camp for a reason - because they are interested in theatre and want to perform. The rehearsal and the performance are times to take on a role, to deliver the lines and to tell a story. It can be tricky to do this in a timely manner, particularly for our actors who use alternative access to a device. The play lines are set up to make access as easy as possible - perhaps just having one line of the play on a page, automatically linking to the next line on the next page. The important part is to make sure the actors have fun performing in the play - this is not the time to be practicing access. In between rehearsals the actor's typical access and communication page set up can be restored to allow our actors to use their regular vocabulary for 'chit chat'. In addition, core vocabulary and theatre specific vocabulary needed for the activities and games is made available in formats that the actors can use. For example core vocabulary is always available in paper-based format to be used across the whole day.

The day's events...
Each day of camp follows a bit of a routine. One play is introduced and rehearsed each day for the first three days of the week. As it's camp, there's also lots of singing and lots of games. The games and activities are all somehow related to theatre: moving around to learn stage directions ("let's go upstage", "time to move stage right"), a photo shoot on Monday in the costumes from the plays to be performed, "Original Kids Idol" in which they perform and the actors judge, learning to use facial expressions, etc.  The activities/games may also be themed around whichever play is being rehearsed that day.

Sharing the fun...
At the end of each half day, each actor reviews the day's events with the Original Kid who is helping them out. Journals have been created with 2 parts: a starter sentence and choices to be selected to talk about the day:
"Today I went to..." Setting the Stage/the theatre/camp etc.
"We..." tried on costumes/sang songs/played games/told jokes/made new friends etc.
"I liked..." playing games/telling jokes/dancing/my snack etc.
"Guess what?" song we sang?/my friend's name is/my costume looks like/I saw etc."
What did you do today?"

Other actors may want their daily news programmed into their device, to share when they get home. The Original Kids are trained in the basics of programming for their actor's device so that they can work with the actors to get this done.

Throughout the week, many photographs are taken to capture the spirit of the camp. The fun of trying on costumes, the freeze dance game, the reactions of the actors to the latest "Idol" offering! By performance day, all the photographs are put into a slide show, that is presented as the audience takes their seats before the performance and during the intermission.

It wouldn't be the theatre without dress rehearsal....
On the fourth day of the camp, lights, music, costumes, props and sound effects are added to the rehearsal of the plays if they haven't been added already.  All three plays are run through in preparation for the final performance!

Staging the performance...
Performance day for both camps happens on Friday.  After a final sound check, "technology prayer" and with costumes on, "Setting the Stage" begins, with the 3 plays performed back to back. Our more experienced actors sit and watch their peers perform, until it is time for "On with the Show" to begin. Then the 2 groups of actors switch places and the audience enjoys the second half of the show. The theatre is open to anyone who wants to attend. Usually our seats are full with proud families, school staff and others who know the actors, but often there are others who just want to see what's happening.

Backing it up:
Call it stage fright, but every year, without fail, someone's device develops an attitude and refuses to
co-operate. Usually it happens on dress rehearsal day, or failing that, just before our actors are about to make their entrance onto the stage! Over the years we have smartened up considerably, and now ensure that we have a back-up ready and waiting throughout the week. Vocabulary back-ups are made, devices are borrowed, shared or alternatives found, just to be sure that our actors will have a voice on the big day. We also bring a tool kit, mounting equipment, visual schedules, core vocabulary boards and anything else that we can think of, with the thought that the one thing that we don't bring, is likely the one thing we will need.

Some of our actors appreciate having a place to stretch out or do some personal 'primping'.  We have a separate room available at the theatre location where the actors can have some privacy if they would like it.  We also arrange for a portable lift and change table for those who may need to use it.  We also make sure that we have our first aid kits and emergency procedures in place...just in case!

Take a bow...
Once the curtain falls and the theatre is dark again, clinicians from ACS meet with the coordinator from the theatre and discuss how things went during this year's camps.  What went well? What can we change next year? OK......Bravo, Brava......let's start planning for next year's camp!!!!

Upcoming Events in and around London, Ontario:

Fall workshops at TVCC

Improving Communication for Children and Youth with ASD
Date: Wednesday October 7, 2015
Time: 12:00 p.m. - 2:00 p.m. OR 6:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.
Location: TVCC Office -  779 Base Line Road E, London
Cost: Free
Register Register Online for the noon session OR Register online for the 6pm session
This program is for parents, caregivers and those in the community who support children and youth with Autism.

This presentation is designed to provide information to parents, caregivers and community providers about typical development of language and communication, identify how communication affects a child with Autism and we will discuss strategies that can be used to increase effective language and communication.

Powerful Words
Date: Wednesday October 7, 2015
Time: 6:00 p.m. - 8:00 p.m.
Location: TVCC Littlehales Gym, 779 Base Line Road E, London
Cost: Free
Register: Register Online
This program is for parents/caregivers of children and youth who use low tech Augmentative Communication Systems. This presentation is geared towards an adult audience.
With the space limitations of most low tech augmentative communication systems, we want to ensure that our communicators have access to the words that will have the most impact and usage throughout the day. This workshop will demonstrate how to use Core Vocabulary, the 200 words that account for 80% of our communication, to enhance a client’s communication potential.

How to Use Symbols
Date: Thursday November 05, 2015
Time: 6:00 p.m - 8:00 p.m
Location: Thames Valley Children's Centre, 779 Base Line Road, London, ON N5C 5Y6
Cost: Free
Register: Register online
Parking: LHSC Visitor Lot #7 at $4.00/hr, $12 daily maximum. Visa, MC and cash are accepted.
This workshop is intended for parents / caregivers, and anyone who supports individuals with special needs.  This session is geared toward an adult audience.

Children learn how to talk by listening to and copying others. Learn how to facilitate communication by using symbols/strategies for children that are non-verbal or difficult to understand. During every-day fun activities, you will learn some key strategies and techniques. Materials will be provided for you to take home so that you can start immediately.

Breaking the ICE 2015 Conference! 

"Melting the Barriers: Our Stories"
Note: Registration closes September 18 2015!!
October 3, 2015, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehab Hospital, Toronto, Ontario, M4G 1R8
The Breaking the ICE Canada conference is an event created by and for individuals who use Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) and their families. This conference is the only event of its kind in Canada and was designed to bring the community of people who use AAC together to share ideas, learn from each other, and create new friendships.

ISAAC 2016 Toronto - Bringing Us Together

August 6 - 13 2016 

ISAAC is excited to announce that the 17th Biennial Conference of the International Society for Augmentative and Alternative Communication, ISAAC 2016, will be held at The Westin Harbour Castle hotel in Toronto, Canada on August 6-13, 2016.  Join us for keynotes, exhibits, workshops, social events, seminars, and the Research Symposium.